Kamyar Adl via Flickr
Iran has a rich culture and fascinating history. Some aspects of life in Iran may come as a shock to the typical westerner, but many others will seem incredibly familiar. Here are some things you may not know about Iran.
Nose jobs are all the rage
In Iran, men and women with bandages across their nasal bridges are a common sight. That’s because rhinoplasty is incredibly popular, especially among young people. Reasons vary from peer pressure to rebellion — the face is one of the few parts of their body Iranian women are allowed to show off in public, so changing their profile becomes a method of self-expression.
The prevalence of rhinoplasty in Iran’s capital city has earned it the nickname of the “nose job capital of the world.” In fact, Tehran has more procedures per capita than anywhere else, including Los Angeles!
The highest population of refugees reside in Iran
It may sound strange to many westerners, who often think of Iran as a place people flee to escape persecution, but Iran currently hosts around 1 million foreign refugees. The bulk of these refugees have fled brutality and turmoil in neighboring Afghanistan and Iraq.
Many of these people are migrant workers, willing to work for low wages in Iran’s urban expanses. Despite Iran’s high population of Afghan immigrants, the Islamic Republic of Iran has recently intensified the deportation of Afghan refugees, causing outrage and massive protests in Afghanistan.
A youthful country
About 70% of Iran’s population is under 30 years old, and that’s by design. In 1979, when the coup ousted the shah and ushered in the Islamic Republic, religious leaders encouraged younger married couples to reproduce, citing a tenet from the Quran that champions young marriage and having lots of children.
The new regime incentivized having more kids by distributing vehicles, televisions, and food on a per-person basis, making being part of a big family more appealing. Iran ended this program in 1988 when leaders feared the baby boom was outgrowing Iran’s infrastructure. Birth rates have declined since the ’90s, so we’ll likely see this statistic change soon.
Gender reassignment surgery is legal and common
Homosexuality is fiercely prohibited in Iran and gender binarism is strictly enforced. However, transgender people are allowed to undergo gender reassignment surgery in Iran. Despite a considerable level of social stigma regarding the decision, sex reassignment in Iran is very common.
In fact, Iran has conducted the second-most gender reassignment surgeries out of any country in the world, trailing only Thailand. Because of the country’s strict ban on homosexuality (homosexual acts are punishable by death), many homosexuals are pressured into sex reassignment surgery, causing many to flee Iran.
Persian carpets are (almost) perfect
If you’ve ever seen a Persian rug, you can attest to its beautiful design and quality. That’s because Iranians have perfected the practice over the course of 2,500 years. The rest of the world has taken notice — carpets are Iran’s second-largest export after oil.
One interesting custom in regard to these beautiful rugs is that the weavers often deliberately make one mistake, to symbolize their belief that “only God is perfect.”
Contraception in Iran
Iran is remarkably progressive when it comes to contraception. Condoms, birth control pills, and permanent sterilization are provided to Iranian citizens who want them, free of cost. In fact, Iran is home to the only legal condom production factory in the Middle East.
Iran also requires all men and women to take a class on contraception before receiving a marriage license in an effort to limit childbirth. The push for fewer children employed the use of both carrot and stick — in addition to providing free contraception, the government also restricts maternity leave benefits after the birth of a third child.
Hats and veils
The hijab (a traditional Islamic head covering worn by women) has a complicated history in Iran. All Islamic veils, including headscarves and chadors, were actually outlawed by Reza Shah in 1936 in an effort to westernize the country. The law was an attempt to be progressive, but in practice, it alienated and humiliated many Iranian women, many of whom elected not to leave their houses, or risk being stripped of their veils and publicly beaten by police.
In addition to banning the hijab, Reza Shah also mandated that men wear bowler hats to mimic the European upper class. Nonviolent protests against the decree were violently crushed by the Iranian Imperial Army. Reza Shah’s successor, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, overturned the law in 1941, and between then and 1979 men and women generally dressed however they felt comfortable. But the legacy of these arbitrary restrictions made dress a fiercely debated topic in Iranian politics in the years to come …
A new dress code
The 1979 revolution ushered in a radically anti-western national identity. Even neckties became taboo — while they’re not illegal to wear, shop owners can be fined for displaying ties on their mannequins. The necktie is seen by many as a symbol of cultural decay and western decadence. On Iranian television shows, only villains are shown wearing neckties.
Since the revolution, girls and women (9 years old and up) have been mandated to wear a hijab and cover their legs and shoulders in public. Violating this law can result in a lashing as a penalty, though reportedly this punishment is rarely carried out. It’s common for progressive-minded women to push their headscarves as far back as they can get away with, while conservative women will often cover as much as they can.
Hospitality and gift-giving
Every culture seems to have its custom surrounding the process of giving and receiving gifts, and Iran is no exception. In Iran, gifts are given on many different occasions, like when guests arrive at a friend’s house or when a friend returns from a trip. Etiquette includes elegantly wrapping the gift.
Part of the gift-giving custom is for the giver to apologize for the modest nature of the gift. The receiver will typically set aside the gift and unwrap it later in private. These social conventions and rules of etiquette are known in Iran as “taarof.” Speaking of which …
If you’re ever invited to an Iranian family’s home for dinner, be sure to remember taarof, as these can be formal affairs. Arrive on time, and remove your shoes if the people inside are barefoot. Bring a gift, like pastries or flowers, and greet each person individually, starting with the eldest hosts first.
Many modern homes serve food at a dining table with forks and knives, but some families still set up cushions on the floor and eat without utensils. Wait until you’re told where to sit and eat with only your right hand.
Iran developed incredibly fast. Rapid modernization and land reform policies of the mid-20th century drove many people out of rural regions, seeking opportunity in the major cities. As a result, urban populations in Iran grew at an incredible rate.
In 1950, only 27% of people lived in cities. By 2002, that number increased to 60%. Combine that with Iran’s baby boom in the ’80s and things begin to look a little crowded. Currently, Tehran is the 16th-most densely populated city in the world. Experts estimate that by 2030, 80% of Iran’s population will be city dwellers.
The minimum age to marry in Iran has changed several times over the decades. In 1975, the legal minimum age for marriage was raised to 18 years old for women and 20 years old for men.
After the 1979 revolution, this law was repealed and the minimum age for marriage for girls was cut in half. Later that year, the minimum age was bumped up to 13 years old for girls and 15 for boys.
In Iran, it is legal for a man to have more than one wife (polygamy), as long as the man’s first wife and a court grants permission for the man to take a second wife. If a man takes a second wife, his first wife is legally allowed to divorce him.
As long as each wife is OK with it, one man can marry up to four women. However, if the couple is childless, the courts may overrule a wife’s objection to her husband taking a second wife.
In Iran, sigheh marriages are legal, yet controversial. Basically, they’re temporary marriages that can last anywhere between several minutes and 99 years. Sigheh marriages allow couples to engage in a sexual relationship without violating Iran’s strict laws against extramarital sex and allows couples to try marriage out without fully committing just yet.
These temporary marriages also serve to legitimize children that are born between couples, granting them inheritance rights. Many critics argue against the practice, arguing that it is essentially legalized prostitution since many of the women that enter these contracts are destitute and in need of monetary assistance.
The internet is censored
As of 2013, almost half of the world’s top 500 websites were blocked in Iran. Among the banned sites are giant social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. The government fears that these sites could be used to organize a revolution.
Of course, many Iranians have found ways around the government’s censorship. Many people use proxy servers and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to disguise their location and access these sites. Despite banning the site in 2019, Iran has its fair share of popular Instagram influencers.
Until 1935, Iran was known to the western world as Persia. According to some historians, the reason for the name change came when a Persian ambassador met with a representative of Nazi Germany. Reza Shah wanted to show the country would no longer be controlled by Britain and Russia, so he demanded the world refer to their country by the name its citizens called it — Iran.
Many historians claim that the word “Iran” comes from the same Latin derivative as the term “Aryan,” and that the new name held racial significance. Some argue that “Iran” translates to “Land of the Aryans,” though this is widely regarded as a myth.
Final resting place
Iran (Persia) is an important location in the Bible. It is the place where Cyrus the Great (the first King of Persia and conqueror of Babylon) is said to be buried. His successor, Darius the Great, is also said to be entombed in Iran.
Queen Esther and Mordechai are purported to be entombed in Hamadan. The Tomb of Daniel is said to house the remains of Daniel in Susa, though there are several locations throughout the Middle East that make the same claim.
Iran loves football
Football, or soccer, as Americans like to call it, is by far the most popular sport throughout the world. Iran is no exception. In fact, Iran has one of Asia’s most successful men’s national teams, winning the Asian Cup three times. Iran frequently qualifies for the World Cup, though to date they’ve never advanced far in the tournament.
It’s not just men who play the game; Iran has a women’s team, too. However, FIFA banned the women’s team from competing in the 2012 Olympics for refusing to remove their headscarves before a qualifying match. In 2020, the Islamic Republic of Iran Football Federation accused the Asian Football Confederation of disallowing Iran to host international soccer matches.
Iran in the Olympics
As of 2016, Iran has claimed a grand total of 21 gold medals in the Summer Olympics and currently ranks 42nd in the world. The Islamic Republic of Iran also competes in the Winter Olympics, but to date, they’ve yet to claim any medals.
Iran has participated in every Summer Olympic games since 1900, save for the Moscow Games in 1980 to boycott in protest of Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, and the Los Angeles Games in 1984 to boycott in protest of the United States’ “interference in the Middle East.”
Hide your satellite dish
Since the days of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran has had a nationalized monopoly on television programming. After the 1979 revolution, the National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT) organization was replaced by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting.
In 1994, the Islamic Republic outlawed satellite dishes. However, satellite television, especially channels like BBC Persian, remain popular in Iran despite constant efforts by the government to jam the signal.
Elections have massive turnouts
To run for office in Iran, candidates must all be preapproved by the Guardian Council. Despite the limited choices given to the public, voter turnout in Iran is remarkably high. Many feel voting is their duty to prevent reactionaries from seizing power, like when conservative and anti-reformist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected in 2005, due in large part to a lack of voter turnout.
Others believe voting is a holy and religious duty. For the 2017 presidential election, over 73% of eligible voters showed up to the ballots. That figure is especially impressive when compared to the U.S. presidential election in 2016, which saw only 55% turnout. The voting age in Iran has been 18 years old since 2007 (it was 15 before this).
Poetry in Iranian has a long, rich history and global significance that permeates the culture to this day. Dating back more than 2,500 years, Persian literature is among the oldest written texts. Persian prose has had a profound influence on many philosophers, poets, and artists, including William Shakespeare and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Most Iranians can quote lines from famous Persian poems. Notable poems include “Shahnameh” (“The Persian Book of Kings”), written in the late 10th century by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, “Maṭnawīye Ma’nawī” (“Spiritual Couplets”) by Jalaluddin Rumi in the 13th century, and The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat (published in 1937).
Pitching in on the wedding
In Persian culture, weddings are typically joyous, extravagant, and expensive events. Usually, a wedding party in Tehran hosts between 300 and 500 guests. Everyone from close and distant family members to neighbors and coworkers are invited. That’s a lot of cake!
As you might expect, the cost of these events is astronomical. To ease the financial burden, the government in Iran will throw mass weddings for multiple couples simultaneously and foot the bill. These mass weddings are typically held on important dates on the Islamic calendar.
Women’s education in Iran
Despite considerable barriers to women’s education and restriction on freedoms, women’s literacy and enrollment in higher education have been on a steady incline in Iran. Currently, around 65% of university students in Iran are women. Perhaps unsurprisingly, multiple survey results have concluded that educated women in Iran view women’s education as vital to Iranian society and that they’d prefer young women to marry after completing higher education.
Research concurs that the increase of women attending higher education programs contributes to a delay in childbirth: On average, educated women in Iran typically give birth to their first child at 24, four years later than the average for non-educated women. Sadly, the radical increase in attendance in university and literacy rates in women has not resulted in higher participation in the labor force or management positions in the workplace.
Prohibition of alcohol
Consumption of alcohol is expressly forbidden for Muslims (99% of the population) under Iranian law, but that doesn’t mean there’s no market for it. According to a 2017 survey, 5.7% of the population admitted to consuming alcohol the previous year.
Since there are no nightclubs in Iran, all drinking takes place in the home. There are no factories to produce alcohol and it can’t be legally imported, so Iranians with a thirst for alcohol have to be resourceful. Booze is often smuggled in, but people will also make their own. For Iran’s small, non-Muslim population, this is legal, as long as they don’t trade it.
Opium addiction is rampant
Alcohol isn’t the only way to get a buzz. In fact, there’s a cheaper way to leave reality behind in Iran — opium. Though opium is also banned in Iran, its geographic location makes it impossible for authorities to keep out, and very cheap for users. Unfortunately, it’s also highly addictive.
Afghanistan, Iran’s neighbor to the east, is the world’s largest cultivator of opium, accounting for three-quarters of the world’s heroin supply. As a result, experts estimate that Iran has the largest number of opiate addicts per capita in the world.
You probably know that Iran is one of the world’s leading oil producers, but you may not know their other major exports. They also produce large quantities of saffron, caviar, pistachios, plastics, chemicals, and fruits.
Of course, oil is still king and accounts for 82% of Iran’s export revenue. They trade heavily with China, Turkey, and Japan. Despite tough and controversial sanctions imposed by various countries, Iran’s economy has resisted collapse due to a diverse and complex domestic industry and advantageous trade leverage with multiple countries.
Plagued by pollution
Iran’s rapid modernization came at a cost. Cities in Iran are among the most polluted in the world — abysmal air quality is to blame for 30,000 deaths per year, according to Iran’s own news agency, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
The pollution in Iran’s cities, mostly caused by motor vehicle exhaust, refineries, and power plants, is exacerbated by thermal inversion, a process in which warmer air settles above cooler air and prevents pollutants from escaping.
Iran is the second-largest country in the Middle East. Because it’s so vast, the climate in Iran varies greatly based on geography. The coast of the Caspian Sea is cool and gets considerable rain, while the south is typically hot and dry.
Most of the country has an arid, desert climate — summers are typically brutally hot, and it gets very cold in the winter. It’s common to see snow in the northern cities when the temperature dips low enough.
An old and regal breed of cat
The “Persian Longhair,” or “Shiraz Cat,” as they are known in Iran, is one of the most easily recognizable breeds of feline. Characterized by their woolly fur and round faces, these cats are a favorite of breeders and judges at cat shows.
The breed gained popularity among feline enthusiasts in 19th-century Europe, and in America after World War II. Their long hair puzzles scientists, who are unable to find any evidence of long-haired African wildcats, which are recognized as the Persian Longhairs’ ancestors.